Sometimes, health experts make it easy for us. Drink moderate amounts of red wine! Eat grapes and chocolate! That’s a diet most of us can get behind. But exactly why these things are good for us can get lost in the headlines. Also confusing is the fact that just because a food contains a certain nutrient or antioxidant does not mean that nutrient is present in any therapeutic amount in a single serving of a food. Take resveratrol, a hyped antioxidant found in the skin of red grapes that has been called a fountain of youth. That's great news for wine lovers, right?
Not so fast. Resveratrol is a polyphenol, part of the good-for-you family of antioxidants that fight cellular aging and tamp down inflammation. Antioxidants have been touted as critical allies in the body’s battle against aging and disease, and replenishing our supply of them with antioxidant-rich foods like wine, chocolate, nuts and berries has become standard nutritional advice. But can you really get these benefits from simply drinking red wine now and again? Researchers studying a group of 768 men and women in the Chianti region of Italy shows that wine as a source of resveratrol may not be such a help when it comes to avoiding heart disease, cancer and early death.
Because few people in the Chianti region take supplements, the study’s lead author, Dr. Richard Semba of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says the population provided a good way to study exactly what effect average amounts of resveratrol, found in a typical western diet, could have on health. “We expected to find at least something. But in regard to every single outcome, the results were negative,” he says of the findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Regardless of how much resveratrol, measured by its breakdown product in the urine, the participants had, their rates of heart disease, cancer, and early death were the same.
That doesn’t mean resveratrol is a poor antioxidant. Nor does it debunk the role that antioxidants can have in improving health. Previous studies, mostly in animals but some involving people, have linked higher levels of resveratrol to longevity and lower risk of heart disease. And other studies of antioxidants found in carotenoids, for example, also documented an association between average levels of carotenoids consumed in the diet and a lower risk of heart disease and cancer (more may not necessarily be better, however, since studies also showed that supplements and high doses of carotenoids did not significantly lower risk of these diseases).
All of which shows that no single food, or compound, can be expected to solve our health problems. “I don’t think the study casts any negative light on red wine or chocolate,” says Semba. “What it really says is that food is much more complex, and wine is much more complex than trying to attribute health effects to a single thing such as resveratrol.” So enjoy the wine and chocolate, as long as you’re not consuming them solely to meet your resveratrol quota.